SANAA: A helicopter gunship belonging to the Saudi-led coalition targeting Yemeni rebels struck a truck in northern Yemen early Thursday, killing nine people, Yemeni security and military officials said, the latest in a series of violent incidents that have marred a humanitarian cease-fire.
The attack came on the second of a five-day truce that went into effect nearly seven weeks after the coalition began airstrikes against the Shiite rebels, known as Houthis, and their allies.
The officials said the attack on the truck, which was suspected of carrying rebel weapons, took place in the northern Saada province, which is a stronghold of the Iran-backed rebels and the birthplace of their political movement, Ansar Allah.
The Houthis last year captured Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, and much of the country’s north before they began marching southward.
Also on Thursday, coalition warplanes flew over Sanaa, Saada and the port cities of Aden and Hodeida in what appeared to be reconnaissance flights, said the officials. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
Saudi Arabia and its mostly Sunni Arab partners began the air campaign on March 26 to try to roll back the Houthis and allied military units loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
The coalition hopes to restore President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, Yemen’s internationally recognized leader, who fled the country in March in the face of the Houthi advance.
The conflict in Yemen is part of a larger one pitting Sunni powerhouse Saudi Arabia and Shiite, non-Arab Iran, whose influence has spread across the Arab world since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq ousted its archenemy, Saddam Hussein. Iran is a key ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad against a Sunni-led insurgency backed by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries, and Tehran exerts significant influence in Iraq and Lebanon.
On Thursday, a senior Iranian official used unusually harsh language to criticize the Saudi monarch, King Salman, reflecting the amplified tensions between the regional rivals.
Alaeddin Boroujerdi, who heads the Iranian parliamentary national security and foreign policy committees, raised a picture of a child allegedly killed in Yemen by airstrikes and said: “I am talking to you, Salman. What is the guilt of this child to be burned by your fire.”
Addressing a news conference in the Syrian capital Damascus, he said Saudi Arabia has become the “axis of aggression and criminality against the Islamic ummah (nation) and the Arab world.”
He spoke as an aid ship escorted by Iranian warships made its way to blockaded Yemen, setting up a possible confrontation at sea. The Saudi-led coalition has vowed to prevent the ship from reaching Yemen, while a senior Iranian military official warned this week that any such action would “spark a fire” in the region.
“The self-restraint of the Islamic Republic of Iran is not limitless,” Iranian Gen. Masoud Jazayeri, the deputy chief of staff, told Iran’s Arabic-language Al-Alam state TV on Wednesday.
Iran says the ship, which departed on Monday, is carrying food, medicine, tents and blankets, as well as reporters, rescue workers and peace activists. It is expected to arrive in the rebel-held port of Hodeida next week — likely after the five-day cease-fire expires.
Iran’s navy said Tuesday it will protect the ship, and on Wednesday Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham said Iran would not permit any country involved in the Yemen war to inspect its cargo.
Saudi Arabia says Iran arms the rebels. Iran supports the Houthis, but both Tehran and the rebels deny it has armed them.
Yemen’s conflict has killed more than 1,400 people — many of them civilians — since March 19, according to the U.N. The country of some 25 million people has endured shortages of food, water, medicine and electricity as a result of the Saudi-led blockade.
The cease-fire is meant to help ease the suffering of civilians in Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest country.
The new U.N. envoy, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, left Yemen on Thursday, one day after meeting with leaders of Saleh’s party. Ahmed has said he intends to meet separately with other political leaders.
“I will do everything I can to bring all Yemenis to the negotiating table at the earliest time possible,” he told reporters before boarding a U.N. aircraft in Sanaa. His destination was not immediately known.
In a statement late Wednesday, Ahmed welcomed the humanitarian truce but noted “with concern” the continued violence in some areas.
“Further violence could hinder the provision of humanitarian aid and relief of the Yemeni people and undermine prospects for a permanent cease-fire and a return to the political process,” he warned.